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Human Trafficking and Smuggling as a ‘Continuum of Exploitation’

The term ‘Human Trafficking’ is largely used to encompass prostitution and sexual exploitation (1), sometimes ignoring other widespread exploitative practices in agriculture, domestic work, fishing, and other industries (2). In recent years, anti-trafficking discourse and literature has shifted to more of a labour approach and focused on labour exploitation (both sexual and non-sexual). This literature has increasingly identified potential risks and vulnerability to labour exploitation and trafficking (3,4). Lack of protection and legal documentation are the most prominent risks associated with vulnerable workers, particularly undocumented migrants working in exploitative conditions (5,6). In many cases, migrants, irrespective of whether they are undocumented or have temporary work visas, experience minimal and/or the absence of standard labour protections and subsistence welfare support.

In Ireland, for example, migrants working in fishing industry often remain isolated and experience excessive working hours, low wages, and no time off. Many workers are unaware or have not received information of their employment rights either prior to arriving or on arrival in Ireland (7). Despite enduring exploitation, many migrants are often reluctant to approach or submit complaints to employment authorities due to the fear of deportation or losing their jobs if found undocumented (8).

Risk and vulnerability are heightened when migrants are dependent on their employers for accommodation, transportation, and food. Migrants in the catering sector have invested large amounts of recruitment costs which have become substantial debts, creating another barrier to escaping the exploitative situations and leaving migrants with limited alternatives of turning back (9). There are several cases in the agricultural industry (farmworkers) where migrants borrow money from employers for transportation costs. While this money could be paid back when they start working, there is often a lack of negotiation or the terms and conditions of repayment were not discussed, which makes workers more vulnerable to traffickers (4). Migrants’ limited language skills is another major risk factor (10). Workers may not be aware of their employment rights and protections if their employment contracts were written in the native language of their employers.

Disparities in where individuals are exploited and their living conditions highly dependent on the nature of the industry and country where they are employed. It is more common for exploited migrant workers to face the worst living and working conditions in the toughest and least paid jobs, for instance, in agriculture and farming. Isolating and restricting the mobility of migrant workers is one tactic used to enforce migrants' dependence on employers and traffickers (6). In addition, force or threats against migrants may be used to ensure compliance with the employer's demands (11). In some cases, female migrant workers are prone to sexual abuse, and are left with no alternatives but to submit to requests in order to retain their jobs (12).

Exploitative conditions coupled with lack of protections makes many migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation (13). Labour exploitation within a trafficking framework can be understood through the lens of a ‘continuum of exploitation’ (14).

Human trafficking and smuggling are two distinct concepts that are often used interchangeably, making the operationalisation of these terms difficult. Trafficking and smuggling are both motivated by economic purposes (15). Smuggling is often considered as a crime against state borders and immigration law, while trafficking can constitute a crime against national and international law, and is conceptualised as a grievous crime against the individual and against humanity (16).

However, smuggling and trafficking are still related (15). A smuggled individual who travels voluntarily to another country may end up working in forced conditions or exploitative sectors later on. The transit stage from smuggling to trafficking may require consent and debt (17). The recruiting agent may manipulate migrants by encouraging them to consent to labour and debt. Migrants may then find themselves in difficult situations in which moving back is no longer possible, and with little capacity to pay back their debt. In some cases, migrants consent to the debt believing they will repay it through employment without being aware of the severe degree of exploitation they are to encounter (18). Once they have reached their destination, they find themselves trapped in low paid jobs. In such conditions, employers may confiscate their passports and other identification documents to prevent them from fleeing (16,19). Therefore, smuggling and trafficking are sometimes thought of as occurring on a continuum of events.

Despite increasing awareness of human trafficking, clear guidelines for conceptualising exploitation at the international level remain ambiguous. Additionally, the concept of vulnerability is difficult to define in a generalisable sense as vulnerability is context specific. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) (20) has well documented the abuse of a position of vulnerability (APOV) as a means to trafficking, nonetheless, the definition of APOV is unclear and unresolved. Defining trafficking is further compounded when victims do not recognise they are being exploited, in which case it is difficult to prove intended abuse.

It is clear that how and why trafficking takes place is influenced by socio-economic conditions (21). Trafficking is also facilitated by a lack of proper labour protections and bargaining power (13). This is why the promotion of adequate labour conditions and secure employment rights could reduce vulnerability to trafficking (3). Simultaneously, it is vital to incorporate preventative strategies from a range of perspectives, outside the ones exclusively related to the labour and human rights approaches (22).


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2. Feingold, D.A. (2005) Think Again: Human Trafficking. Foreign Policy: ABI/INFORM Global, (50), pp.26-32.

3. Shamir, H. (2012) A labor paradigm for human trafficking. UCLA Law Review, (60), pp.76-137.

4. Norwood, J.S. (2020) Labor exploitation of migrant farmworkers: risks for human trafficking. Journal of Human Trafficking, 6(2), pp.209-220.

5. Magalhães, B. C. (2017) Mind the protection (policy) gap: Trafficking and labor exploitation in migrant domestic work in Belgium. Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, 15(2), pp.122-139.

6. Flaim, A. and Villongco, C. (2019) Vulnerability to exploitation and human trafficking: A multi-scale review of risk. In: S.J. Gold, and S.J. Nawyn, eds. Routledge International Handbook of Migration Studies. 2nd ed. Routledge: Routledge, pp. 188-198.

7. Murphy, C., Doyle, D.M. and Murphy, M. (2020) ‘Still Waiting’ for Justice: Migrant Workers’ Perspectives on Labour Exploitation in Ireland. Industrial Law Journal, 49(3), pp. 318-351.

8. Doyle, D.M., Murphy, C., Murphy, M., Coppari, P.R. and Wechsler, R.J. (2019) ‘I felt like she owns me’: Exploitation and uncertainty in the lives of labour trafficking victims in Ireland. The British Journal of Criminology, 59(1), pp. 231-251.

9. Meeteren, M. V. and Wiering, E. (2019) Labour trafficking in Chinese restaurants in the Netherlands and the role of Dutch immigration policies. A qualitative analysis of investigative case files. Crime, Law and Social Change, 72(1), pp. 107-124.

10. Smit, M. (2011) Trafficking in human beings for labour exploitation. The case of the Netherlands. Trends in Organized Crime, 14(2-3), pp. 184-197.

11. Ollus, N. (2016) Forced flexibility and exploitation: experiences of migrant workers in the cleaning industry. Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies, 6(1), pp. 25-45.

12. Palumbo, L. and Sciurba, A. (2015) Vulnerability to Forced Labour and Trafficking: The case of Romanian women in the agricultural sector in Sicily. Anti-Trafficking Review, (5), pp. 89-108.

13. Hager, S. (2010) Farm workers and forced labor: Why including agricultural guest workers in the migrant and seasonal worker protection act prevents human trafficking. Syracuse J. Int'l L. & Com., (38), pp. 173-199.

14. Skrivankova, K. (2010) Between decent work and forced labour: examining the continuum of exploitation. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

15. Kleemans, E. R. and Smit, M. (2014) Human smuggling, human trafficking, and exploitation in the sex industry. In: L. Paoli, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Organized Crime. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 381-401.

16. Campana, P., and Varese, F. (2016) Exploitation in human trafficking and smuggling. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, 22(1), pp. 89-105.

17. Anderson, B. and Davidson, J. O. C. (2004). Trafficking-a Demand Led Problem? Save the Children Sweden.

18. Salt, J. (2000) Trafficking and human smuggling: A European perspective. International Migration, 38(3), pp. 31-56.

19. Aronowitz, A. A. (2001) Smuggling and trafficking in human beings: the phenomenon, the markets that drive it and the organisations that promote it. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, 9(2), pp. 163-195.

20. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). (2013). Abuse of a position of vulnerability and other "means" within the definition of trafficking in persons. United Nations.

21. Chuang, J. (2006) Beyond a snapshot: Preventing human trafficking in the global economy. Global Legal Studies, 13(1), pp. 137-163.

Todres, J. (2012) Human rights, labor, and the prevention of human trafficking: A response to a labor paradigm for human trafficking. UCLA L. Rev. Discourse, (60), pp. 144-158.


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